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Sonoma’s constant gardener

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Using her thick Australian accent Deborah Thomas charms gardening enthusiasts at Sonoma Mission Gardens, teaching techniques for growing flourishing plants that she describes as being “a wee bit naughty.”

A master in the art of container gardening, Thomas encourages her audiences to pack as many plants as possible into the same pot. “You want them to be intimate,” she explains, emphasizing that final word with a twinkle in her eye. Using verbs like slap, tickle, rip and shove she brings a titillating vocabulary to the world of soil and fertilizers.

Sonoma Mission Gardens has employed her expertise in planting and landscape designing since 2007, but Thomas has a long history in the business. She became passionate about gardens in the 1990s while working at the now closed A Garden State of Mind nursery in New Jersey. There, for several years, she decorated Bruce Springsteen’s house for the holiday season (“Patti was a hoot and a half,” she said about Springsteen’s wife,) once helped Jon Bon Jovi pick out the perfect plants and assisted Martha Stewart in choosing an assortment of succulents for a gardening segment on her television show.

“That was where I really blossomed, she said of her Jersey years, never one to miss an opportunity for a play on words. Born and raised in Australia, Thomas holds a journalism degree from Melbourne University and, after working for a few years for newspapers, traded her notebook for a backpack and explored Europe and the Greek Islands in the late 1970s. Ending up in London she once again took up reporting, working for the Associated Press and writing freelance travel stories before returning to Australia and becoming a tour guide. She entertained busloads of tourists while traveling throughout the country.

Thomas then met an American military man serving in the Navy Special Forces and within three months they were married and moved to Scotland, beginning what is now 36 years of marriage. He husband Tim Thomas remained in the military with his assignments bringing them to homes in Sicily, San Diego, and in and out of New Jersey several times.

“I was in New York when the towers fell,” she said about the 2001 disaster, explaining that from that day until Christmas Eve she did not see her husband, an “explosive ordinance disposal technician,” again. “He’s the one with the amazing stories to tell,” she said.

They were last stationed in Whidbey Island, Washington, where Thomas again worked as a landscaper until Tim retired and they moved to Sonoma, where Tim, born and raised in Napa, had roots. “It’s the closest we’ve ever lived to Australia,” she said, thrilled they can take one direct flight home.

Thomas started working at Sonoma Mission Gardens only days after they arrived and, until recently, Tim had a second career as a federal agent for Homeland Security at San Francisco Airport. Now retired from his second career, he teaches scuba-diving lessons while Thomas creates the lush multi-plant containers gardens, sometimes as many as 70 a week. Besides what they sell straight from the nursery, she makes special orders for weddings and special events and teaches an occasional private class as well as a few a year open to the public.

She favors begonias and coleus in her plantings, using not just baskets, but wheelbarrows, watering cans and small wagons. Sometimes customers bring in a container they want to have planted, or replanted. “I’m here to inspire people,” she said. And to encourage them to water, water, water, the only way to keep a container plant thriving.

She says sometimes weekend residents ask if a container can go a waterless week until they return and she tells them no. “I tell them to set up a drip system or they can’t buy it,” she laughs.

At a planting class this summer she stood under a shade sail, creating container gardens while sipping white wine and, at intervals, giving the plants a splash of chardonnay.

“Bottom’s up,” she said, reminding her students that this is wine country, so why not?

Visit sonomamissiongardens.com to receive email notification of the next fall container garden class.